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In the Arms of All I'm Keeping Here with Me

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Hardison rolls over in his sleep, and Parker is awake, looking at him.

“Okay,” she says, like she's giving in to something. “It just can’t be a bitey dog.”

Hardison squints at her. “What? Woman, what dog?”

“The dog,” she says. Like it's obvious. The dog.

Hardison stares at her for a moment. It’s two o’clock in the goddamn morning. Parker looks wide awake.

“Eliot's dog,” Parker clarifies.

“Parker,” Hardison groans, “I don't think Eliot is getting a dog anytime soon.”

Parker rolls her eyes. “Well, not now. But you know…” she trails off. “Someday.”

“Someday, huh?”

“Yeah," Parker says. “It's okay if it's a big dog so long as it's a nice dog. And it can't bark much.”

“Okay,” Hardison says, half humoring her and half serious, “No biting and no barking.”

“Good,” Parker says as if it’s been decided.

Hardison has the feeling it is up to him to tell Eliot this.

----

“Here's your badge. It's got a camera right here," Hardison points at a little part of the Benton County police badge which has an enamel eagle holding a banner with the state motto. The camera is the eagle's eye.

Eliot nods.

"Try to make sure you turn your whole torso, not just your head, so we can see," Hardison adds.

"This ain't my first rodeo!" Eliot growls as he snatches the badge. He turns towards the door, pinning the badge one handed.

"Oh,” Hardison calls out just as Eliot reaches the door, “and, ah, you know, Parker says no bitey or excessively barky dogs, man."

Eliot pauses and turns around. "What?" Sometimes his voice dips in a way that made Hardison's knees a little jelly-ish. Man has a great voice.

"You know, in the future. when you get a dog. Just make sure it likes Parker. Think she's had some bad run-ins or something."

Eliot squints at him. "Like I was gonna get a dog that doesn't like Parker. She's gotta live with it."

"She wanted me to tell you."

"Okay." Eliot shrugs, and gets going. Figuring out Parker will just have to wait.

---

Parker starts appearing in Eliot's apartment all the time. She doesn't even like his apartment. Eliot chose it for the sight lines and the roomy kitchen, but it's on the third floor -- too far to belay without being noticed, a little high for free climbing -- and the ceilings are low.

She seems to have adopted his coffee table as somewhere to perch, like a disgruntled squirrel. Eliot stops being surprised to see her Sunday and Monday mornings, and Friday nights while Hardison pretends to be trolls or gnomes or something with his little internet friends. She learns how to use his coffee maker. Eliot has to buy a new bag of sugar, she uses so much in her cup it's basically coffee-flavored syrup. Eliot thinks about introducing her to sweet tea. He could set it outside in the sunshine to steep like his Mama used to do.

“You shouldn't live so far away,” Parker pronounces a little over a month into this new routine. She's doing a handstand and eating a bowl of multi-colored cereal upside down. Eliot reluctantly admires her skill. She's still gonna choke one day, and she better hope he’s around to give her the Heimlich.

Eliot's place is three miles away from the pub. On his motorcycle it takes about twenty minutes, and he can run there in under half an hour. Hardison's apartment, where Parker spends most of her time now, is less than a mile away.

Eliot grunts, not sure what to say. He's still on his morning coffee, and this is kinda early to unwind what Parker is really saying. He thinks it might be important. She sounds like she worked up to this.

“What if something happens?” Parker asks.

“I'll be there,” Eliot says, matter of fact.

“No,” Parker flips so she's right side up. Eliot sometimes wonder how the blood doesn’t rush to her head. She comes to stand right in front of him, eye to eye since they're only an inch apart in height. “I mean to you. What if something happens to you and Hardison and I don't know?”

Eliot blinks. It's not something... He hadn't thought of it like that. He shrugs. “I'm sure Hardison's got little trackers on me,” he says. “You'd get me back.”

She doesn't look completely reassured.

“Parker.” Eliot catches her hand with his free one, hot coffee mug warming his other hand. With Hardison, he might catch the man with a palm on his neck, pull him in so he can see the sincerity in Eliot's eyes. But you don't grab Parker. She’s gotta come to you.

He laces their fingers together, holds their clasped hands between them, shakes it a little. “I'm not worried,” he says, smiles with his eyes.

Parker relaxes.

“Hardison can make sure we can follow you though, right?” she asks.

Eliot shrugs. It wouldn't bother him. “Might be useful.”

Parker's shoulders are loose now, tiny worried creases around her eyes gone. She swings their hands between them, sweet and, and couple-y.

Eliot pulls free like she’s burned him, brushing past her to pick up her bowl of rainbow colored milk.

Parker heads to his window. Before she opens it she pauses. “You're part of us,” she says. States.

Eliot has had almost six years now of listening to Parker. He can hear the question.

“Yeah Parker,” he says. “Always.”

“It'll be nice, someday,” Parker says.

It's not a parting shot, because Parker doesn't think that way. But it kind of feels like one. When her head disappears from the window, Eliot slumps a little against his kitchen counter.

Someday. Eliot presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose, his head full of dangerous thoughts, now: thoughts about about Parker’s smile and Hardison’s eyes, Parker’s legs, Hardison’s legs. The times he’s seen them kiss. Eliot’s been trying not to think about all that shit since before they got together because what they have, Parker and Hardison, it's good. It makes them happy, and he’s not gonna get in the way.

But the way she said someday. Parker can’t -- can’t mean what it sounded like she means, or what Eliot’s stupid heart hopes she means.

He shakes his head, lets the movement roll down his body as he pushes away from the counter. It doesn’t matter anyway. He’ll wait her out. Hardison will explain things to her, or she’ll get distracted. Eventually. And that’s for the best.

Probably.

---

“Do you think we’ll need a house?” Parker asks. “I think we’ll need a house. But I like the brewpub.” She gives a little sigh. “The dog will need a yard, though.” Her mouth twists into a moue, but her eyebrows aren’t upset.

Hardison wishes she wouldn’t have these conversations while he’s supposed to be sleeping. Also, it’s harder to read her face when she’s hanging upside down from some rigging over the bed in the crash pad.

She totally looks like Spider-Gwen though, doing the classic Spider-Man pose. It’s doing things for him.

Hardison thinks for a moment, and comes up with, “Isn’t Eliot getting the dog?”

Parker blinks at him. It’s that blink that means she’s trying to add what he’s saying to how she’s already processed the situation, and it’s not fitting well.

In the silence, something in Hardison’s brain goes ding.

“Wait,” he says, sitting up so fast he almost knocks heads with her. “Hold up. Are you saying...”

Parker’s eyebrows raise like, “Well yeah".

Hardison is a stone cold genius in a pretty classical sense. This is the sort of moment though when his brain zips through things so quickly he’s left trying to catch up to his own thoughts. Six years of interactions get re-angled fast: the looks, the closeness, and the touches; the assumptions he’d made.

“With Eliot,” he says. “And the dog. A house. Damn, yeah, we’ll need to get a....”

Parker politely waits until his brain slows back to manageable levels.

Shit, he is so awake now. No caffeine needed.

He still wants coffee, though, so he gets up and heads for the kitchen, using the bed sheet as a cloak.

Hardison was a barista for like a hot minute when he was nineteen. Mostly just to try it. It left him with a mild disdain for Starbucks, and the ability to make an espresso with his eyes still mostly closed.

While pulling the shot he thinks about Eliot and Parker, leaning together against the wall, shoulders brushing. Pictures Eliot picking up Parker’s hand and kissing it. Thinks how Parker would smile.

While steaming the milk he thinks about the approximately six dozen times he’s hugged Eliot; how Eliot always pulls away; how Eliot usually initiates it. That quick moment where he’ll rest his head against Hardison’s shoulder, and how it always makes Hardison’s heart skip a beat. They’ve hugged even less since he and Parker became a thing, is the thing. Hardison had tried not to notice.

He makes a foam lily in his cup. Then he pulls a shot for Parker -- half-caf because he always makes half-caf because no one wants to see Parker on a caffeine high.

Parker’s concoction makes Eliot flinch, but Hardison’s made worse. Her coffee gets four pumps of white chocolate, measured out in Eliot’s glass measuring cup for liquids. He whisks in cocoa with Eliot’s smallest whisk. He sets it on the edge of the counter for her.

She’s standing there, silently watching him in that way that would be creepy if he didn’t know her well enough to understand that this is her giving him space to think.

Hardison slumps against the counter, mug cupped in his hands. The hot porcelain is comforting in a way, and he takes that sense of comfort, takes a deep breath, and pictures it: Parker kissing Eliot. Hardison next to them. On a bed. Eliot turning and kissing Hardison next, his hand on the back of Hardison’s neck, drawing him in tight and steady. Parker’s bright eyes on them. Parker’s shirt off. Eliot’s shirt off. Eliot’s biceps. Parker’s belly. Both their hands on his chest, because he’d be shirtless too.

Hardison takes a sip of coffee, not looking down at his lap where there’s some proof that he... he likes that idea. A lot.

Now he’s thinking of them cuddling afterwards. Would Eliot cuddle? He would. Hardison is so sure he would. Like, probably not in his sleep, but Hardison can respect that. They’d have to let him be closest to the door, always on the outside of the bed. Parker on the outside too because Hardison prefers not to get an elbow in the ribcage when she climbs over him in his sleep to go... do Parker things. Sometimes she has to get up in the middle of the night and stand on the rooftop, or do rigging gymnastics, or other superhero-like things. She checks the windows a lot.

Will she sleep better with Eliot there? On the one hand, they’ll never find a safer place than the space next to Eliot Spencer; on the other, all that security could make her feel more claustrophobic. It might be easy for her to feel stifled.

But it’s Eliot. With anyone else in the damn world Hardison would worry, but Eliot. So maybe it’ll be the opposite, and she’ll feel freer. Eliot gives Parker words, sometimes. Gives her something steady to stand on, a way to plant her feet before leaping. Metaphorically speaking.

Hardison stares at the bottom of his empty mug. Breathes in deeply. Breathes out.

“Well,” he says. “Hot damn.”

---

Then Hardison gets weird: asking all these questions, hugging him all the time now, these quick little fly-by hugs. He always says, “for morale” after, because he knows Eliot will let him get away with it since it’s their thing. One of their things.

They have a lot of things, come to think of it.

Hardison has got to be working on a project. He asks Eliot to explain shit to him like sight lines, defense security, suburbia vs the city. It sounds like groundwork for a new job. When he asks, Eliot says city: More escape routes, easier to get help, easier to hide. If you’re not gonna live in a secluded house off the grid with five miles between you and the nearest neighbor, then you gotta change your whole perspective to account for people being around.

They do a few jobs, take down some bad guys. Eliot gets to be a fireman. He’s hoping things will settle down to normal once Parker and Hardison figure out he’s not leaving them. They don’t need him in their bed to have him close. He’s right here. He’s as close as he can get.

He sleeps with the lady from the security desk at their last job. Her name is Amanda, and she’s cute in a tan, wholesome way. It’s over in about a week, and Eliot didn’t expect anything different.

He brings her by the brewpub exactly once, for a beer after the movie but before they end up at her place. Hardison is normal, on his laptop in a corner. He looks up once, waves lazily, and goes back to hacking or researching or killing elves or some shit, who knows. He doesn’t do his work down in the pub much, but it’s not unusual.

Parker, on the other hand, steals Amy’s name badge, swings a towel over her forearm like she’s a maître d, and serves Amanda her martini with chilly silence.

“Ex-girlfriend?” Amanda asks, clearly thinking she’s the rebound sex.

Eliot grunts, and changes the subject.

---

The next job features Hardison briefly posing as his boyfriend. Eliot doesn’t even know how that happens, honestly. He was flirting with the mark’s wife, and then the next thing he knows the mark shows up and it’s all going to hell. Then Hardison strides in, grabs his hand, kisses his cheek, and says, “Hey, baby. God, work was long today. Who’re your new friends? I’m Everett, Canton’s boyfriend.”

Dick Vanderbilt visibly relaxes, and Clara Vanderbilt pastes on the perfect trophy wife smile.

Eliot is too good to be thrown, but goddammit. He couldn't get some warning? Parker laughs over the comms, her funny little honk-laugh that means she’s really amused.

Hardison brushes his thumb over Eliot's knuckles while small talk happens, and Eliot thinks, He’s overselling it. But he’s not. It’s just that it feels too much, too perfect.

He pushes Hardison’s hand away the moment the Vanderbilts are out of sight.

---

Because Hardison is the best, it only takes him a few weeks to narrow their options down to three places: a high rise apartment, a more usual apartment in a block on a quiet street, and a little house downtown.

The house is great, but it’s low, no good for escapes, no good for nests despite the attic Hardison talks about. Parker hopes they don’t end up with that. Eliot might need it though, for the dog and like, gardening.

Eliot shows up in his leather jacket, with his motorcycle keys. Hardison is probably into that, the whole motorcycle Thing. Parker knows it’s a Thing because Peggy is also into it. Parker thought the point of driving motorcycles was going fast.

“So,” Hardison starts, using his little clicker to bring up images of the places. “We should be able to hit all three of these today, but keep in mind they’re only, like, prototypes. Base models, if you will. Obviously, we can take our time about this, play the market a little,” he does little motions with his hands as his speech catches a playful rhythm for the last few words. Parker smiles at him because she knows it’s a friendly thing, something he does with the team.

Eliot just looks at them blankly. He doesn’t look annoyed, or hopeful, or sad or confused. That’s strange for him, Parker thinks. It’s like he put his face on parade rest.

She gnaws her lip.

Hardison clicks to a map of Portland, with their route outlined in green, and the stops highlighted. The highrise is the farthest from the brewpub, and Parker thinks it’s perfect, but she also thinks it won’t work for Eliot. Or the dog.

“What’s the job?” Eliot asks. “Real estate scam?” His fingers twitch at his keys just a little bit, Parker can only see it because she’s mostly behind him and on the right side.

She doesn’t think it’s a comfortable motion. Maybe he’s nervous? Most of the time Hardison reads these things best, but sometimes when it’s Eliot only Parker sees it.

“Nah, man,” Hardison says easily. “No scam.”

“Then what the hell-- “ Eliot starts.

“Look, just,” Hardison looks him dead in the eye, like he read Eliot’s nerves, too. “Just trust me.” He lets that sink in a moment, then asks, “A'ight?”

Eliot’s weight shifts. He glances back at Parker, and she gives a little nod. He turns back to Hardison and nods.

“Alright.”

“Alriiiight,” Hardison says. “Autobots, let’s roll out!”

Parker has no idea what that means. Eliot glances at her, and he doesn’t either, but they both follow Hardison out to Lucille.

---

Parker wishes Portland had buildings designed around courtyards, like the apartments in Paris. She could get herself from one side of the block to the other and never touch the ground that way. Still, this one is pretty good. The apartment is on the fifth floor, and has skylights.

Eliot was pretty quiet when they viewed the high rise apartment. At the second apartment he checks around the windows, spends a few minutes in the yard, and some more in the kitchen.

“Now, Hardison says, “this one doesn’t have as much space, but of course we could buy the apartment opposite this, knock out that wall.” He nods towards it. “From the blueprints it should mirror this one except for the stairwell access. If you want to see something similar, there’s another one three blocks down, but it’s not the top floor so I thought this one would do for the tour.”

Parker closes her eyes and imagines the space, doubled. It would be good, she thinks. Enough room for a medium dog. Not a really big dog, though. They go back to Lucille.

When they get to the house, Parker doesn’t like it on sight. It’s little. Short. Two stories, nothing more. Where would she even climb?

Eliot follows Hardison through the house quietly. So far he hasn’t had any questions or anything. He goes out to the yard and looks around. Parker and Hardison follow him outside.

Parker shifts from one foot to the other, trying to resist the thing in her that’s keening high and constant at the thought of living so close to the ground, with no real escapes. Sophie says relationships are about compromise. Usually that means Sophie telling Nate to be less controlling, but maybe that also means living in a short house if it makes her boys happy.

“It would be good,” she says. “You can garden. And the dog can dig holes. Dogs like digging holes.”

Eliot’s face finally comes online, twisting into incredulity. “The hell, Parker!” he says. “Why do you think you and Hardison need to buy a house for me?”

“We’re not buying a house for you,” Parker says, at the same time Hardison says, “Stop pretending you don’t know what’s happening here.”

They both turn and look at him. He’s sitting on the back stoop, elbows on his knees and hands loosely clasped in front of him. The pose draws attention to his hands. Parker loves his hands.

“Dammit, Hardison. I’m not pretending anything.”

Hardison just gives Eliot that steady, sure look that says he knows exactly what’s going on. It’s not cocky or arrogant. He looks at her the same way when she’s scared about emotional stuff and Hardison thinks it’s all gonna be okay.

Eliot looks away. Kicks a little at where the pavement is cracked. Walks around the yard. Then he comes back to them and says, “I don’t know what you want.”

Parker shrugs, because this part is easy. “You.”

Hardison nods her way, like, "What she said."

“Me.”

“It’s not that complicated,” Hardison says. “Just honest.”

Eliot’s face goes through about five emotions.

“Look,” Hardison says. “We’re not expecting, I don’t know... instant relationship, full speed ahead. But,” he looks Parker’s way.

“Don’t you want us?” Parker asks, finally. If he doesn’t then she’s going to need to run away for a little, which will be hard on Hardison. If Eliot doesn’t want them then they won’t get the dog, and they won’t have an Eliot-kitchen with everything he needs, and they won’t... they won’t have Eliot.

Her stomach feels cold.

“I thought--” Parker starts. She thought they were all in this. Thought she understood it: the shape of them, the way they worked, the way they were growing into each other.

Eliot’s face goes all soft and open, and he takes a step towards her. “Parker,” he says. “Of course I...” he glances at Hardison. “It’s not that simple,” he finishes.

She cocks her head. “Why not?”

“Because it’s just not what people do, Parker!” Eliot says. “I know you don’t get that, but it won’t work with three. How’s that supposed to even work?”

“Aw man, you need to do some research on relationships in the 21st century,” Hardison says.

“It works how it already works,” Parker explains. “We work.” The cold pit in her belly is warming up, because if Eliot didn’t want this he wouldn't be arguing with them. He wants to be convinced, she can tell.

“Besides,” Hardison says. “Since when do any of us care about what people do? We’re thieves.”

Eliot’s face says that was a good point. He scowls again, and says, “Hardison, you’re okay with this?” He motions to the air between himself and Parker. “Me and Parker. You’re just all fine and dandy with that?”

“And me,” Hardison says. “You and Parker and me.”

“No,” Parker says. “That’s not how -- it’s Eliot and me, and Hardison and me, and both of you, and -- and all of us. We --” This is frustrating. She can feel how it is, but she can’t find the right words. “We,” she says. “Just--” She looks at Hardison for help. This is important, and she doesn’t have the words.

“I get it, Parker. I know what you mean,” Eliot says. She’s pretty sure when he looks at her like that it means he gets her, maybe even that he loves her.

“Better question,” Hardison says. “Are you sitting around thinking it’s me and Parker, and you’re just our plus one?”

Eliot’s mouth goes up and down like a goldfish, and something in Parker’s chest swells and rises, triumphant.

Hardison launches to his feet to cup Eliot’s face, turn it up towards him, and they kiss, and this is it, they have it, like a jewel in their grasp, like the perfect heist pulled off flawlessly.

She presses in, and just like that Eliot turns to kiss her, too. His lips are warm, and he’s a little stubbly, and Hardison’s arm is around her waist. Parker’s heart is soaring.

She pulls back to grin at them. This might be worth living in this awful, grounded house. With the dog.

“Seems like it works to me,” Hardison says, because he’s never able to resist getting in the last word.

Eliot’s shoulders slump down to their normal height. Parker hadn’t realized how tense they’d been.

“Yeah,” he says, looking around, “Okay.”

“Okay,” Hardison echoes.

“Okay,” Parker repeats. Okay, okay, okay. The breeze flutters through her hair. Hardison’s hand is still on Eliot’s shoulder, and it fits there.

Eliot pulls back to look at the house. “This house ain't gonna work for Parker, though. Let’s go back to that second apartment.”

---

The shelter is loud. And it smells. She has her Alice smile on, and a dress because Alice wears a lot of dresses.

Hardison is talking to the shelter guy about breeds and histories and things. Important things. Hardison is good at details.

Eliot is looking around. He stops in front of a lot of little cells.

The dogs have beds made with PVC pipes. They look like trampolines. One of the dogs jumps and barks at her, and Parker tries not to flinch because Alice wouldn't flinch. Or growl at it. Even though it works.

Eliot has stopped in front of a medium dog that doesn’t look like anything, not a Labrador or a German Shepherd, or any kind of breed. It’s speckly. One eye is blue. It looks lonely.

Hardison catches up to them and holds Alice’s hand. “He’s supposed to be one of the calmer dogs here,” Hardison says. “Never jumps.”

“Hey there, boy,” Eliot says, crouching down. He holds out his hand to the chain link fence. The dog carefully sniffs his hand, and licks it, and the smile on Eliot’s face means that this is The Dog.

Parker stops having to force an Alice smile because she’s smiling herself, her world bright and perfect.